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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Step 6 – Twinkle, twinkle little star – oh give me a break!


Warning: Never look directly at the Sun and never look at it through binoculars or a telescope unless the telescope has been especially equipped for this purpose.

The stars look so peaceful, so serene, so tiny. It’s so easy when looking at them to fall into the romantic, nursery rhyme mind-set.  Please don’t. The warning in red above about our star  – the Sun – should give you pause in itself. The stars we all  are looking at make nuclear bombs seem like toy caps in a child’s toy gun.

If you could only examine the one nearby star – our Sun – closely, you would see that it is something much different from the impression of stars we get when we walk out and look up at the sky.

To begin with, it is huge.


And it is dynamic.

And there is simply nothing more important to life on Earth – nothing.

Stars are absolutely essential to our past and present. They are an elegant example of fundamental forces of unimaginable ferocity at work – and, in most cases, in balance. You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to appreciate the basic process that makes a star. Gravity draws gases – mostly hydrogen – together into a mass and like a red-hot, cosmic snowball it eventually becomes so large that the center of the mass experiences crushing forces.  It is so dense in the center – about sixteen times as dense as lead – that the hydrogen atoms regularly collide with one another, producing helium and releasing energy. These collisions are the same as what happens inside a hydrogen bomb. Only in the case of most stars the inward pressure of gravity exactly balances the outward pressure of the nuclear energy – and this balance can be maintained for billions of years. Our Sun is believed to be about 5 billion years old and will probably last another five billion years.

This picture by amateur astronomer Maynard Pittendreigh through his PST does a good job of capturing what these small telescopes can show us of our star,

This picture by amateur astronomer Maynard Pittendreigh through his PST does a good job of capturing what these small telescopes can show us of our star,

Unfortunately, while we see our star often, it is difficulty – and dangerous – to observe. Amateur astronomers, school in the use of proper, safe filters – or using a simple projection method – have always found it  easy to observe sun spots safely.  But I find this relatively unsatisfying. The black and white images give little sense of the powerful forces you are really observing.

There is now a better solution, but first, please heed the constant warning: Don’t look at the Sun with your naked eye and  most certainly do not look at it through any telescope or binocular, or you will certainly damage your eyes. The terrible thing about this is the damage can occur without pain and without your even being aware of it at the time, though if you use an unfiltered telescope the damage will be so great and so fast, you’ll know.

That said, in the past few years observing the Sun has become relatively easy, safe, and exciting for me, and I suspect for many other amateurs astronomers. But to do  this does requires a $500 telescope dedicated to the job. It’s called a Personal Solar Telescope and it allows us to see the Sun in the light of hydrogen alpha and that means we actually look into the Sun – not just at what we think of as it’s surface – and we get  a tiny glimpse at the marvelous, monstrous, seething dynamic that is a star. I wish everyone could have this experience. I’ve never seen anything like the huge prominence in the first picture above, but I have seen plenty of very large prominences  such as the ones revealed in the second picture taken by an amateur using a PST. It is common to see these “flames” leaping from the edge of the Sun and it takes real effort to remind ourselves that even these common, “small,” prominences  are larger than the Earth itself.  What’s more, you can watch them change practically minute-by-minute.

But even if you only can see the Sun in pictures, take some time to study the images, try to imagine what they represent, and as you do, consider a few basic scientific facts.

  • We are star stuff. Most of the atoms in our bodies were made inside the unimaginable explosion of an incredibly ancient, incredibly gigantic, exploding star,
  • All life on Earth is absolutely dependent upon the Sun.
  • Earth is in a very real way inside the Sun. What we commonly call it’s surface is merely the point at which the Sun’s gases become opaque to us. But Sun stuff reaches around and well beyond us.

Finally – constantly remind yourself that all that we are saying – seeing and learning – about the Sun is true of all those tiny little lights in the night sky that we call stars. In fact, most of the ones we see with our naked eye are bigger and brighter than our Sun. And many are undergoing ferocious changes on a regular basis. The reality of stars is way beyond our experiential knowledge – nothing we encounter  on Earth can compare with the size and power of a star. But by studying images and by looking through property filtered telescopes at our own star, we can at least begin to build an experiential base to better appreciate what we are seeing.

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